NEW YORK – Exactly where the New York Knicks’ upcoming five-game road trip and the rest of their year heads is at best uncertain, with a pair of valuable right knees sidelining star forwards Carmelo Anthony (for the short term), and Amar’e Stoudemire (for the remainder of the regular season).
For at least one game however, the healthy Knicks (38-22) who were able play on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, more than picked up the slack, in a 113-84 dismantling of the Utah Jazz (32-31).
Although Anthony is expected to return as New York begins a western road swing next week, it was announced hours before tipoff that Stoudemire, who had been playing well after missing the first two months of the season following knee surgery, will undergo a right knee debridement and miss the next six weeks, through the end of the regular season.
“Amar’e is a big piece of this thing,” said head coach Mike Woodson. “When you’re talking about getting deep into the playoffs, or just to start a playoff series, Amar’e had to come back and [he] really established himself to help us from an offensive standpoint on that low block. When you start playing playoff basketball, you need some low post play. You need to mix it up a little bit. So, we’re going to miss that [for at least the rest of the regular season]. Carmelo gives us a little bit of that, but it’d be nice to have two guys, which is where Amar’e was big for us.”
Against Utah, neither of them were needed, as a 19-2 first quarter run, followed by an 18-2 spurt in the second period helped the Knicks to a 17-point halftime lead. New York never led by less than that margin in the second half and went up by as much as 32 points in coasting to an easy win.
While the Jazz didn’t have a single scorer reach double figures until the seconds of the third quarter, the Knicks were paced by 75 bench points, led by 24 from guard J.R. Smith and a season-high 20 by forward Steve Novak.
Much of that duo’s damage was done from behind the three-point line, where Smith (in eight attempts) and Novak (in 10 tries) each made half of their three-point shots.
Point guard Raymond Felton added 15 points and four assists, while guard Iman Shumpert (career-high 8 made free throws in 10 attempts) and reserve forward Kenyon Martin had 10 points apiece.
Held to just 38.5 percent shooting (30-for-78) from the floor, Utah sank 4 of its first 5 shots to take an 11-4 lead, but five different Knicks accounted for the next 15 points before New York later took a 23-13 edge.
The Jazz answered though, by scoring 8 of the last 10 points of the opening quarter to pull within 25-21.
Leading just 31-29 early in the second period, the Knicks scored the next 10 points with Novak making a three-pointer and Felton scoring five straight points on a three-pointer and a jumper.
Novak then hit consecutive threes to grow New York’s lead to 47-31, and an alley oop dunk from backup point guard Pablo Prigioni (seven points, game-high five assists) to center Tyson Chandler (six points, game-high nine rebounds) swelled the lead to 55-36 before the Knicks held a 55-38 advantage at halftime.
Crediting his coach, Novak said, “Coach Woodson does a great job with X’s and O’s. Every time out, we come out with two plays. A lot of tonight was his play-calling.”
Also noting that he and his teammates were motivated by stepping up with Stoudemire down, Novak added, “Some nights, you can be down, or you can rally. [The latter] is what you saw. More than anything, you feel for Amar’e, but then you rally together. That is what we do… we get paid to win at home.”
Another big run made sure of that.
Up 59-42, New York again ran off 10 straight points in the third period, capped by a three-pointer from Smith.
A pair of Shumpert free throws increased New York’s lead to 75-45 before Utah (which moved into a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers in the race for the eighth and final Western conference playoff spot) closed the quarter on a 14-3 run to shrink its deficit to 78-59.
But, five Knick threes in the first half of the final quarter, including consecutive 27-foot treys by Smith put New York up 96-69 with 6:42 left.
The Knicks’ lead never went below that 27-point difference and moved as high as 32 points three different times, the rest of the way.
No Jazz starter scored in double figures, as three Utah players – guard Alec Burks (14 points), forward Gordon Heyward (13 points) and center Enes Kanter – only reached that plateau off the bench, once the game was basically decided.
Whereas New York scored its most points in 15 games (since a 120-81 home win over Sacramento on February 2nd), Woodson was more pleased that his team raised its record to 30-8 this season when holding an opponent below 100 points.
“Defensively, we just kept scraping and scratching,” Woodson said. “Our [defensive] assignments were pretty much on the money. That’s something that had slipped in the past. We would say we were going to do something and then we don’t do it once we get into the game. A lot of that has to do with not being able to practice. You hope when you’re watching tapes, guys pick it up. But, it’s not the same as doing it live. I thought tonight, [we were] focused and committed and I thought defense really won the game for us.”
Now that the Knicks took care of business at home, even without their two primary stars, an expected grueling road trip, featuring four teams that would currently make the Western conference playoffs, will begin on Monday night, with a game at Golden State.
After a day off, the Knicks face the first of two sets of back-to-backs, which will wind through Denver and Portland before finishing with stops at the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah.
“You’d like to win them all. That’s always the goal,” said a hopeful Woodson. “[If] we win them all, then I’m really happy.”
A more pragmatic Woodson then conceded, “I just want to see us compete and make sure we put ourselves in a position to win. I think if we do that, we have five games, and if we’re over .500, that’s a successful road trip.”
“We have talked a lot about this trip,” Novak added. “We knew it was coming. This whole month is not gentle. We have to go out there and play well. We are ready for it. We have set goals for ourselves. Things have changed with Amar’e out, but we will get Melo back soon. These games are important.”